How Long Does it Take to Get Your Tax Returns?

FT Contributor
A woman opening her mailbox and receiving her tax return.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Every time tax season rolls around it can feel like a chore getting your tax return in on time. However, it’s important to file your taxes promptly each year for two reasons.

The obvious reason is that you don’t want to incur any penalties for filing late. Secondly,  you may find you have a refund headed your way. If you’re owed a refund on your tax return, you may be wondering how long it’ll take to get that hard-earned money back from the government.

What Is the Refund Processing Time?

It’s very difficult to gauge exactly when your refund will arrive. However, if you take a few factors into consideration, you should be able to get a rough idea.

First off, generally speaking, the earlier you file your refund, the more likely you are to have it processed in a timely manner.

Even if you file your tax return months before that mid-April deadline, though, you’re going to want to put your modern shipping expectations on pause. The IRS isn’t Amazon. In fact, the closest the IRS can get to Prime shipping is three weeks.

On the IRS’ website, they explain that more than nine out of 10 refunds should be received in 21 days — although many refunds are sent in a much shorter amount of time.

This timetable is for e-filed returns. Mailed paper returns can take six or even eight weeks for the IRS to process, and that’s after they’re received.

Speed Up the Refund Process

If you want to get your refund as quickly as possible, there are a few ways you can help to speed the process along:

  • Make sure that you have a W-2 or 1099 form for all work that you’re reporting for the year.
  • Make sure to have all of the information you need beforehand in order to claim deductions and credits, such as a child’s Social Security number to claim a child tax credit, or Form 1116 to claim a foreign tax credit.
  • E-file as soon as you have all of your information.
  • Request your refund as a direct deposit.

How Should I Be Expecting My Refund?

Another factor that can significantly impact the time it takes to receive your refund is the refund delivery method you choose. There are several different ways to have your refund sent to you, including:

  • Direct deposit to a bank account: Using this method can often get you your refund in 7-10 business days, and you won’t even need to cash a check.
  • A paper check sent in the mail: Although it can take longer to process, this works well if you prefer traditional methods or do not have online banking set up.
  • A debit card with the value of the refund on it: This is sometimes an option, and it can help you get your funds quickly and avoid any possible check cashing fees you might otherwise incur.
  • Purchasing government bonds: This is a newer option that allows you to invest your refund (or a portion of it) into government bonds rather than receiving it in cash or check form.
  • Applying the refund to another year’s taxes: If you’re feeling proactive, you can roll your refund forward and apply it to next year’s taxes, allowing you to either claim a larger refund next year or have fewer taxes taken out of your paycheck throughout the upcoming year.

The most common option is to have your refund directly deposited into your bank account. Not only is this used by 80% of all taxpayers, according to the IRS, it’s typically the fastest way to receive your refund.

Track the Process of Your Refund

If you’re wondering what stage of processing your refund is in, you can check using the IRS’ “Where’s My Refund?” tracker. You will need your Social Security number, filing status, and exact refund amount in order to check on your refund’s status. Once you fill in the fields, you’ll see one of three messages:

  • Return received.
  • Return approved.
  • Refund sent.

This can give you a clearer idea of how long it will take, based on what stage of the process your return is currently in.

What Do I Do With My Refund Once I Receive It?

Once you have your refund in hand, the world is your oyster. A few suggestions for common ways to use your refund include:

  • Investing it: If you’re looking to save towards your future, you can invest your refund in a retirement account, stocks, or another form of investment.
  • Paying off debt: Another common option is to use your return to pay off debt — consider using the lump sum for the avalanche method of paying off debt.
  • Depositing it into savings: If you’re looking for a way to keep your money handy but also have it accrue a little interest, you can deposit it into a savings account.
  • Creating an emergency fund: If you don’t have an emergency fund yet, you can use your refund to start one and secure yourself against any unforeseen financial challenges in the future.
  • Saving for a vacation: Many people will put their refund towards a vacation. If you do this, though, make sure that your other financial priorities are in order first and take the time to set up a vacation budget.

I Filed My Taxes But Never Received My Refund, What Happens Next?

If you filed for your tax refund and never got it, there may be a few different reasons for the prolonged delay:

  • The return had inaccurate or missing information: This means a human must review the tax return, which can add weeks of time to the process and may require changes on your end before it can be properly processed.
  • You were a victim of tax fraud: Some criminals will file for taxes under another name. If you think this has happened to you, contact the IRS.
  • You sent the wrong direct deposit information: If this is the case, you’ll want to contact the bank that received the money and work with them to get your refund.

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